The Mayan pyramids have always interested me as much as the Egyptian’s – as we flew in from the US I could hardly wait to finally be in Mexico. What I hadn’t reckoned on was how commercial the coast is – to a European it is like Benidorm. Less whitewashed pueblo buildings and skeletons than Margarita happy hours and kids lurching drunkenly out of Senor Frog’s like zombies. In my disappointment, I forgot that tequila is no antidote to Mexican ice. Even hardened travellers make stupid mistakes sometimes. Daybreak found me curled up on the bathroom floor in a foetal position praying for an early release. Unfortunately this was the day we planned to head into the jungle and begin our exploration of the Mayan ruins.
I remember little of the hours our jeep rattled through the jungle. There was no radio – we rode in silence, bumping along the dusty track. The screech of metal on metal awoke me – the roof had sheared off, and the jolt cut my temple as the hot steel door frame slammed against my cheek where I lay. Blood trickled slowly at the corner of my eye. I felt pretty wretched. Fortunately, the pilot had sensibly stuck to bottled beer and was fine. Not long before we reached Chichen Itza he saw a gas station – ‘Let’s fill up, just in case,’ he said. Blearily, I gazed around – men in sweat stained khaki with machine guns slung over their shoulders chatted by the pumps, a couple of dogs kicking up dust as they snapped at one another, yellow teeth bared. Knowing we were getting close to the pyramids, I forced down a bottle of water and tried to feel excited instead of like dying. As we drove on, a steel grey sky drew close over the dense jungle - it felt like the vegetaion was closing in behind us.
At the Hacienda, fans creaked slowly overhead as the manager signed us in. He tossed a key at us, and dabbed at his sweating forehead with a limp handkerchief. Our cottage was in the gardens, a short walk from the pyramids. An empty cane rocking chair on the terrace shifted to and fro in the breeze. In the silence, the dank air hummed with insect life – it was alive, electric. Glassy eyed crows hopped among the blood red bougainvillea as we approached the clearing. At once, I had a sense that the jungle was only being kept at bay – you could easily imagine within months it would engulf the pyramids again. It made you feel as though you were encircled by a thousand watching eyes from the darkness.
As the great pyramid loomed before us, my heart was racing. The first thing I heard was the sound of women weeping at the top of the steps. The acoustics in the clearing are incredible – the Mayans were well known for their mastery of this. The sobs and wailing reverberated around the site. Thunder rumbled in the distance. I wondered how the cries of the priests and the terrified screams of the sacrificial victims would have rung out over the jungle. The women had climbed the sheer stone face, only to find they were too terrified to descend. I watched a grown woman crawling backwards, sobbing hysterically as she clung to the guide rope. It was enough to put me off - I still felt like someone was slowly turning a knife in my stomach and didn't have the strength for that. As I sat back with my camera to take in the atmosphere, the pilot gamely climbed to the summit. On his return, even he was a little shaken if not stirred. The odd thing about the Mayan ruins we saw on that trip was that although I knew all the stories about human sacrifice, of brutality, of hearts torn out, and heads taken as trophies I had not expected the place to still be so chilling. I had studied plenty of Mayan artefacts in museums and books. I had read up on the brutal history. What I was not prepared for was to feel so scared once in the place itself. I grew up in a remote and beautiful part of England, moors populated with stone circles and tales of vengeful ghosts and disembodied hands snatching the wheel from late night drivers. As a child you grow pretty blase about the strange things you see and feel - they are part of the landscape. Maybe that's why now as a writer my senses are attuned to shifts in people's moods and the atmosphere of places – and as a person I always get a strong gut instinct about both. What I had not expected about a place that is now becoming something of a tourist destination was that the sense of menace would still be so palpable. It was like centuries of bloodshed and violence had seeped into the stones themselves.
Looking at the horrified faces around me, I wasn't the only one who felt the sheer terror of the place - is it too much to say a place felt evil? It was enough for me – we did not stay for the tourist friendly light show in which they re-enact how the snake ‘writhes’ along the steps of the great pyramid at equinox. The video clip above gives you an idea of the effect. Back at the hacienda, we ate a subdued meal on the terrace. Pewter chargers beneath our plates of chicken with chocolate and chili mirrored the dull, sulphurous sky above us. As we turned in for the night in our single metal framed beds with crucifixes above them, my dreams were fitful and dark.
The worst place I experienced was the great cenote – Cenote Sagrado. This is the site of sacrifice – human and otherwise. It is approached through a narrow jungle path. By the time we reached it, darkness was falling – it felt as though you could reach up and lay the flat of your hand against the dense grey sky. Suddenly, beneath us, this vast, gaping hole opened – a sheer 27m drop to a 60m diameter pool. The atmosphere was chilling. Archaeologists have dredged it – and found precious gold, jade, obsidian – and apparently the skeletons of children and men.
Then, in the middle of the night, a sharp pain tore me from my fevered dreamstate. I felt something on my leg. Then again, a second, searing pain on my arm. I cried out. The pilot awoke, swearing in pain. I fumbled for the lightswitch. The beds were heaving – a carpet of huge fire ants covered us, and on the wall above, a perfect disk of ants the size of a large clock face moved in unison. More were following – it was like the jungle had disgorged them, they were streaming through the cracks in the wall like a dark, seething tidal wave. Screaming and yelling, we flicked as many of them off as we could and dived into the bathroom. In the shower, we washed them away, and I sat trembling as the pilot stamped on the few trying to squeeze through the door frame. What to do next? We couldn’t stay there all night.
We took it in turns to grab our few belongings from the room which by now was black with ants. Their bodies crushed against the terracotta tiles as we raced to get out of the cottage. The Hacienda was deserted. No cars, no people – not even the rangy dogs we had seen on arrival. We left our key, and drove non-stop through the jungle at night, nursing searing bites on our bodies and the fear of coming across machine gun toting locals, breaking down, or running into wild jaguars. Thanks to the pilot’s sense we at least had enough petrol to get back to the coast. As the first rays of sun broke through the dark night, we began to relax, began to laugh and chat at last. Suddenly a wild animal the size of a pig leapt from the jungle. There was a sickening cry, the crack of bone and a dull thump as we hit it. There had been no way to avoid it. I remember the headlights illuminating dark eyes as it ran in front of the jeep and swung its head towards us- who knows what it was. We stopped in the road, looked back to where its body lay prone in the road. It was motionless, stretched out, the size of a man. We waited. Once we were sure it was dead, reluctantly we pulled away - what can you do in the middle of the jungle, call the RSPCA? Another short life in Mexico, another brutal end. As we pulled into Cancun at dawn and stumbled through the sand towards the ocean, I finally let my hair down – literally – and a solitary ant fell to the ground, shook himself, and ran off into the darkness.
TODAY’S PROMPT: For more Halloween horror stories why not visit Just Go! http://aknickerson.blogspot.com/ There you can visit over thirty other sites with terrifying travel tales, and enter the draw for one of three fabulous goodie bags.